You Ought to Have a Look: “Sustainability” Not Sustainable

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.


This week, as Pope Francis announced the Vatican will host a climate change summit later this month focusing on “sustainable development,” the conventional wisdom of “sustainability” came under fire.

For example, New York Times’ report Eduardo Porter penned an article “A Call to Look Past Sustainable Development” with this provocative introduction:

The average citizen of Nepal consumes about 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a year. Cambodians make do with 160. Bangladeshis are better off, consuming, on average, 260.

Then there is the fridge in your kitchen. A typical 20-cubic-foot refrigerator—Energy Star-certified, to fit our environmentally conscious times—runs through 300 to 600 kilowatt-hours a year.

American diplomats are upset that dozens of countries—including Nepal, Cambodia and Bangladesh—have flocked to join China’s new infrastructure investment bank, a potential rival to the World Bank and other financial institutions backed by the United States.

The reason for the defiance is not hard to find: The West’s environmental priorities are blocking their access to energy.

Porter’s article announced the release of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto”—a work by a collection of “scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens” who “write with the conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.”

Sounds interesting.

The main concept behind the Ecomodernist Manifesto is that “sustainability” is the wrong approach. Porter describes it this way in his article:

The “eco-modernists” propose economic development as an indispensable precondition to preserving the environment. Achieving it requires dropping the goal of “sustainable development,” supposedly in harmonious interaction with nature, and replacing it with a strategy to shrink humanity’s footprint by using nature more intensively.

Aware of the pitfalls of gross generalities, we’ll offer that the Ecomodernists see technology as humankind’s greatest tool and our way forward rather than inevitably leading to our downfall.

While we think the Ecomodernists are a bit overly optimistic in the pace of development/deployment of new energy technologies, overplay the climate change-related urgency of such development, and see too much involvement of the state, their general take on the issue of humanity’s association with the earth’s environment resonates well. Consider this:

Modernization has liberated ever more people from lives of poverty and hard agricultural labor, women from chattel status, children and ethnic minorities from oppression, and societies from capricious and arbitrary governance. Greater resource productivity associated with modern socio-technological systems has allowed human societies to meet human needs with fewer resource inputs and less impact on the environment. More-productive economies are wealthier economies, capable of better meeting human needs while committing more of their economic surplus to non-economic amenities, including better human health, greater human freedom and opportunity, arts, culture, and the conservation of nature.

The Ecomodernists recognize that the “modernization process is far from complete” but emphasize that it requires decoupling, rather than re-coupling, with the environment (the latter being the goal of many “sustainable” ideals).

We’re only brushing the surface here, so to really get into the philosophy that they are laying out, you ought to have a look at the whole Manifesto. If nothing else, it’ll be the start of an interesting conversation. For us, it seems to lay out a much better course, although imperfect in some details, for “environmentalism” to follow—one in which the current feeling of pessimism is replaced by optimism (born from history).

Also expressing a disdain for the “sustainability” craze this week is George Will. In his Washington Post column, “’Sustainability’ Gone Mad on College Campuses,” he likens the dedication to sustainability to that of religious fundamentalism (perhaps foreshadowing the pope’s announcement). He writes

Like many religions’ premises, the sustainability movement’s premises are more assumed than demonstrated. Second, weighing the costs of obedience to sustainability’s commandments is considered unworthy. Third, the sustainability crusade supplies acolytes with a worldview that infuses their lives with purpose and meaning. Fourth, the sustainability movement uses apocalyptic rhetoric to express its eschatology. Fifth, the church of sustainability seeks converts, encourages conformity to orthodoxy and regards rival interpretations of reality as heretical impediments to salvation.

Will’s contempt bubbled over as his column discussed a green-backed push for colleges to rid fossil fuel holdings from their endowments. He astutely points out:

The effect of these decisions on the consumption of fossil fuels will be nil; the effect on the growth of institutions’ endowments will be negative. The effect on alumni giving should be substantial because divesting institutions are proclaiming that the goal of expanding educational resources is less important than the striking of righteous poses—if there can be anything righteous about flamboyant futility.

Not only will their effect on the consumption of fossil fuels be “nil” but so too will their effect on the course of future global warming, as we pointed out in this tweet (in response to Bill McKibben’s attempt to shame Harvard into divesting from fossil fuels):

 

Will ultimately offers up this modest proposal:

College tuitions are soaring in tandem with thickening layers of administrative bloat. So here is a proposal: Hundreds of millions could be saved, with no cost to any institution’s core educational mission, by eliminating every position whose title contains the word “sustainability”—and, while we are at it, “diversity,” “multicultural” or “inclusivity.” The result would be higher education higher than the propaganda-saturated version we have, and more sustainable.

Be sure the check out his whole column, here.

And finally, on a lighter note, we came across an–uh–interesting article in FirstPost.com, an India-based news site.

Apparently a team of British researchers (with little else to do?) dug through popular song lyrics to determine how our moods were influenced by the weather (through song) and how climate change may alter this in the future. According to FirstPost.com, here’s what they found:

Climate change is predicted to intrude into almost every area of life—from where we live, to what we eat and whom we war with. Now music can be added to the list.

That’s the unusual idea put forward by British researchers on Tuesday, who say the weather has powerfully but discreetly influenced the soundtrack to our lives. And tastes in songs are likely to change as the climate shifts.

Fancy listening to the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” when you are grinding out yet another long, sweaty heatwave? “These assumptions we have about certain weather being good and certain weather being bad, like sun being good—that might change,” researcher Karen Aplin of the University of Oxford said at a European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna.

The article was headlined “Wonder Why Our Songs Are Getting Worse? It Might Be because of Global Warming.”

That, perhaps, may explain why certain preferences for “oldies” don’t often include disco—after all, the ’70s were a relatively cold period!